Rare Russian Masonic books stolen to order

October 25, 1996

Thieves have broken into one of Russia's leading historical public lending libraries and stolen part of a unique collection of rare Masonic books and a copy of the first book published in Russian. The authorities fear it could herald the start of a new crime wave.

Many of the 17th and 18th-century books from Russian count Alexei Uvarov's collection of mostly German and western European texts about the Masons and Rosicrucian orders, were irreplaceable, Dr Mikhail Afanasiev, director of the Moscow-based State Historical Public Library of Russia, said.

Four of the books taken were inkunabula - books published within the first 50 years of the history of printing and worth at least $10,000 each. A unique copy of Ivan Fedorov's handwritten New Testament of 1520, known as the Russian Gutenberg could be worth as much as Pounds 80,000 or more, Dr Afanasiev said.

The inkunabula, which included copies of Russia's first printed book, the 1564 Apostle, Lopez de Mendoza's Proverbios, (Seville, 1500) and Gerson's Opera, (Strasburg, 1488) were, like the Masonic texts, easily identifiable and had probably been stolen to order for a collector.

In recent years thefts of rare and ancient books have been noted in several leading Russian libraries, although this was the first such incident at the historical library.

The thieves cut through a flimsy fence at the back of the building in the historic Kitai Gorad (Chinese) district before climbing through a window which had been left open. To bypass the library's security system they cut in half a door to the rare book depository. A secondary system which should have cut in at this point failed, leading to suspicions that they had inside help.

The thieves helped themselves to titles from the 1,000-volume collection of Count Uvarov, a 19th-century Czarist minister of education.

"This was a unique collection of rare Masonic books, the value of which was contained in their being part of a collection. The thieves only took specific titles, leaving gaps in the book stacks," Dr Afanasiev said.

Because the books could be identified by the Uvanov crest it was likely they had been taken for one specific collector. The theft highlighted security concerns at the 3.5-million volume library, Dr Afanasiev said, which is heavily used by the university community.

More than 1.3 million books are lent each year to students, scholars and academics with daily attendance by readers averaging 1,000. Its stock includes an unique 1,700 volume collection of 17th to 19th-century Russian and European cuttings from handwritten magazines and newspapers and the only existing books from those censored in 19th-century Russia - because the censor saved one copy of each book for himself.

A review of security before the burglary recommended that more books be made available on microfilm and collections be more securely stored, but failed to identify funding for this.

The Russian National Library has suffered a series of thefts and a local lawyer has been suspected, although no firm evidence has been found.

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